Is another public health crisis brewing beneath the coronavirus pandemic?
New research shows that Americans are turning to alcohol to soothe their nerves while in isolation. US sales of alcoholic beverages skyrocketed by 55 percent the week of March 21, according to Nielsen data. Compared to the same time last year, liquor sales rose by 75 percent, wine by 66 percent and beer by 42 percent.
Social-media feeds, too, are soaked with booze: Across the country, people are quipping about “quarantinis” and posting screenshots of their Zoom happy hours with co-workers.
“All that I’m seeing online is people in robes with glasses of wine, and memes about people drinking cases of wine,” says Katie Kennedy, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn.
The newly sober 25-year-old — who “came out of rehab during the end of the world” — finds the sudden uptick in drinking triggering and troubling.
“It’s glamorized,” says Kennedy, who is currently living in a sober house in Williamsburg.
Of course, there’s a reason why the world seems to be glugging drinks with reckless abandon during lockdown.
“We base our socializing around alcohol,” says Ben Riker, 39, from Oneonta, N.Y. Riker has been sober for five years, and works for an addiction-recovery network called Friends of Recovery-New York. Even though he doesn’t drink anymore, he understands why people are desperate to hold onto a normal-feeling social ritual when everything else is topsy-turvy.
But when does taking the edge off start to become a problem?
To figure it out, count the empty cans — or bottles.
“If your nightly two beers becomes four beers, you may be self-medicating,” says psychologist Peter Provet, the president and CEO of Odyssey House, a network of in-patient rehab facilities in New York. Increased tolerance, and intense hangover symptoms like sharp headaches, nausea and sweating, could indicate a bigger problem than cabin fever, too.
Another red flag? Booze becomes the focus.
“You stop being interested in other activities, like hobbies, work or checking in on friends,” Provet says. “If you’re choosing to abuse alcohol while you have other important tasks at hand, that may be an indication that you have a problem.”
The stakes are even higher for people grappling with their alcohol dependency, from sober-curious Brooklynites to Alcoholics Anonymous-attendees.
“Isolation is the enemy of recovery,” says Provet, who points out that most major recovery programs rely on community to help keep people strong. Social-distancing may help stop the spread of the coronavirus, but it also puts substance-abusers at a high risk for relapse.
“The biggest struggle,” he says, “is for people to maintain connection right now.”
There are ways to do that without gathering in a church basement.
“Use the phone, use the phone, use the phone!” says Riker. A phone call to a friend or family member can soothe your nerves at least as well as a drink.
If you’re in a recovery program and have a sponsor, call them.
“Mine helped me feel seen and not crazy,” says Kennedy, who dialed her sponsor from a bodega, where she was pacing anxiously and on the verge of buying beers. “I eventually bought a bunch of Dr. Pepper and left.”
Provet says keeping busy is also important for controlling the anxiety that drives people to drink. That’s especially true right now, when you can’t watch television or open a newspaper “without seeing COVID-19.”
For Kennedy, that means working on art projects, watching movies and taking care of the two dogs in her Williamsburg house. When she’s low on ideas, she turns to her sponsor for inspiration.
“She makes sure my quarantine schedule is full to get me through the day, even if it’s busy work,” says Kennedy.
And Zoom chats — those happy-hour enablers — can be helpful, too, for those who need a little extra support with their drinking habits during lockdown. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are taking place on the video-chat platform; online directories provide access to groups all across the country.
“The last meeting I attended was based in Illinois, but it had tourists from Maine and Toronto,” says Jack Walden, from Chicago. The 28-year-old, who’s abstained from marijuana and alcohol for the last three years and has a podcast called Sobriety Sucks, has also Zoomed into meetings in California and Massachusetts.
Although Walden misses “the spiritual high” of in-person meetings, he says his virtual ones have been helpful. Plus, there’s an added appeal for AA newbies: hopping on a FaceTime call is a lot easier than braving an in-person meeting.
Whatever your relationship is with alcohol, says Kennedy, finding a community is the most important thing during this stressful time.
Without hers, “I’d be shut away in my room and drinking in bed,” she says.
She’s looking forward to emerging from lockdown healthy in more ways than one — and taking her new, sober self out into the world, “where you’re not just a tiny box on a screen.”
— With additional reporting by Mary Huhn
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